The couple and the love story behind Philly’s McGillin’s Olde Ale House

Intrigued by the scenery and armed with catering experience gained working weekends for Williamson’s Catering, 19-year-old Mary Ellen Spaniak found herself a summer job on Cape Cod. Walking down Main Street in Hyannis, she was surprised to see the familiar face of a favorite Philadelphia colleague, Priscilla Mullins.

As Mary Ellen would soon learn, the Mullins family had roots in Massachusetts and spent their summers running Priscilla Cottages on the Cape. Priscilla invited Mary Ellen to join her family for lobster dinner that night.

Dinner was cooked by Priscilla’s brother, Chris, who, in addition to working in the family’s summer rental business, cooked at a local restaurant. Listening to Mary Ellen talk about her summer adventure, Chris could tell that his sister’s friend already loved Cape Town. After eating, he asked her if she would like a visit.

“I had a motorcycle and I could take it to parts of Cape Cod that most people don’t see,” recalls Chris, who is now 74.

“I wasn’t used to motorbikes and was scared to death, but I trusted Chris because he was so sure of himself,” said Mary Ellen, now 70. “We went to Scargo Tower and above the lake – which was shaped like a fish. There were no cars and it was so beautiful I couldn’t believe it.

That night established what would be Chris and Mary Ellen’s routine for the rest of the summer of 1971: they rode his motorbike across the dunes to Wellfleet on days when they weren’t working. Or after their restaurants closed for the night, they found themselves in Hyannis to listen to music in the bars.

“At the end of the summer, I sold my motorcycle and bought a diamond ring,” Chris said.

Back in Philadelphia, Mary Ellen returned to Gwynedd Mercy to complete her bachelor’s degree in education, and Chris returned to Villanova where he was working on a master’s degree in education for the council. They both returned to their part-time jobs at Williamson – working at different properties had prevented them from meeting earlier.

One night in October, Chris called to invite Mary Ellen to dinner, but then Mr. Williamson called and asked her to work. “Okay, go ahead, I’ll see you later,” said Chris, who then lived in West Philadelphia.

They met at the City Line Avenue Marriott for coffee after his shift. They had just entered when Chris showed her the ring. “I was going to give you this tonight,” he said.

It was on Mary Ellen’s finger as they sat down, but she hadn’t verbalized her response. The whole experience felt surreal, Mary Ellen said. “It was such a shock – when you’re 19 you can’t really comprehend spending your whole life with someone.”

“So, what do you think?” Chris asked.

Mary Ellen said yes.

The next day, at her home in East Falls, she showed the ring to her parents.

“I let you go one summer, and now you want to get married,” her mother, Lucille, said.

But when Chris was her son-in-law, Lucille understood why Mary Ellen wanted to marry her.

Just over 50 years ago, on May 27, 1972, Mary Ellen and Chris were married in a Catholic ceremony with a full Mass at Saint Catherine of Siena. “It was a nice little church in Germantown that no longer exists,” Mary Ellen said. There was no center aisle, so her father, Henry, walked her down one of the side aisles.

The couple tried to keep their reception at Williamson’s at the top of the Germantown Savings Bank building – the GSB – fairly simple, but still had 150 guests. “My mother was one of 16 children,” said Mary Ellen, who is herself the eldest of eight children. Jim Williamson offered his two employees a nice discount.

The rock and roll band the couple hired was not to the liking of Chris’ mother, Helen Morley Mullins, as they were unfamiliar with “Old Cape Cod”.

Chris and Mary Ellen’s son, Chris Jr., was born in 1974, and daughter, Morley, in 1976.

Mary Ellen worked as an elementary school teacher in the city’s public and Catholic schools for two years. Chris spent eight years as a guidance counselor at an elementary school in Prospect Park. But Chris’ dad was a chef and Mary Ellen’s dad owned a bar, and hospitality came naturally. In 1980 they opened Morley’s Pub in Havertown. A year later they sold the place and opened a second Morley’s Pub in Norristown, which for eight years served lunch to barristers and jurors during the day and offered Irish music and dinner in the evening.

When they learned that Mary Ellen’s father and Uncle Joe wanted to sell their bar after 35 years, the couple couldn’t resist. In 1993, they bought the place where they had worked together for three decades: the Olde Ale House at McGillin.

The couple restored the building that had been a bar since the 1860s, expanded the food menu, started serving local craft beer and learned not to drive each other crazy. “When you’ve been married for 50 years, but you’re also working together, it’s like you’ve been married for 100 years,” Mary Ellen said, making her laugh with Chris.

When their children were in school, Mary Ellen left early. “I took care of family life after 4 p.m.,” she said.

“We never drive to work in the same car because Mary Ellen was talking about things she needed to do in the business and I was thinking about what I needed to do and our thoughts collided,” Chris said.

But Chris tends to the flower garden so Mary Ellen can enjoy it without breaking a sweat, and he never gets to the bottom of his coffee before Mary Ellen fills his cup.

“He’s a very positive person, he has a great sense of humor and he works very hard,” said Mary Ellen. “He loves working in the office, with the numbers, while I’m better in front.”

“She has an amazing personality – she’s so engaging,” Chris said. “She can tell you who she sat next to in kindergarten – she has this incredible ability to remember people, and that makes her a fabulous host. We both strive to ensure that people feel comfortable and welcome, and she’s particularly good at it.

Mary Ellen and Chris enjoy collecting other people’s love stories. “It’s hard to estimate how many, but we know hundreds of people met at McGillin,” Chris said. “It started long before we got here.”

The growing collection of stories is now kept in a special guestbook called Love Letters – the brainchild of Chris Jr., who now handles most of the day-to-day operations and saw the value of recording this part of the history of the bar. “We’re asking people who have met here or got engaged here to sign the book,” Chris Sr. said. “The oldest people in our book met here in the 1950s. lots of people would meet on Wednesday nights which was a great night to spend after the shops close at 9pm.

What about McGillin’s?

“They just see someone across the room dancing or singing karaoke and they think, ‘That’s the one,'” Chris Sr said. “Maybe it’s magic , who knows?”

Mary Ellen thinks she might know: “Beer and wine help.”

The couple, their daughter and her husband, Jason, and their four grandchildren will celebrate Mary Ellen and Chris’ 50th birthday with a Disney cruise in Europe. Chris Jr. and his partner, Bill, will meet everyone in London.

As nice as it has been to see Chris Jr. take the reins, his parents aren’t planning on fully retiring anytime soon.

“Chris is going to die behind the bar,” jokes Mary Ellen.

About Victoria Rothstein

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